Few consider the deaf wine community for media, jobs, and opportunities. These two are hoping to change that.
By Sedale McCall
There has been a lot of conversation about diversity and representation in wine over the past three years. Significantly, much of that conversation has focused on race and emphasized the experience of black and Hispanic communities in wine (learn more about our perspective here). However, D&I efforts cannot solely focus on racial diversity to be truly inclusive. That means considering gender, sexuality, and disabilities as additional ways to increase representation in the industry.
Laura Unterstein decided to do something about it.
“While the wine industry has experienced a reckoning of sorts over the past few years regarding diversity and gender equality, I very rarely saw conversations about inclusion touch on accessibility for the Deaf and/or disabled communities,” she said. “Diversity is intersectional, and it must include accessibility.”
How it all Started
Her company, Uncorked Access, is a solution to a problem she hadn’t seen addressed yet. The organization is about advocacy for the deaf wine community. However, it also provides solutions to the challenges this community faces.
“Uncorked Access came about very organically because there wasn’t another organization like it. I connected with Peter Cook, a highly respected leader in the Deaf community, over the fact that we both had our Level 3 Award in Wines through WSET,” she said. “There is nothing about wine that inherently requires sound or hearing to appreciate it. We started raising awareness, and Uncorked Access naturally grew into an organization that not only encourages conversations but offers solutions. We believe we can create the change we want to see through advocacy, education, and community, engaging with both the hearing and Deaf communities.”
For Michelle Morris, advocate and Communications Director with the National Deaf Center, wine was another avenue to pursue her passions.
“Last year, I went through a bit of a rough patch, and my friends asked me what I would do if I could do something I loved and get paid for it. Serendipitously, I saw an ad for a PT Sales Associate position at DCanter Wines in D.C.,” says Morris. “Before last year, I didn’t realize the wealth of opportunity in wine nor the dearth of disabled and BIPOC representation. A desire to change this fueled me to keep learning, growing, and finding opportunities to be in this field.”
Challenges for the Deaf Wine Community
Both Laura and Michelle see many opportunities to address challenges for the deaf wine community most importantly, that includes increasing access to available wine education resources.
“A lot of wine education is not accessible in sign language [or] any sign language. Deaf people who sign that want to pursue wine education have to fight for basic accommodations with institutions unfamiliar with this demographic,” says Morris. “Not only that, educational materials on YouTube and other places don’t always have captions, either. Without equal access to information it is really hard for deaf people to succeed in this field.”
Laura agrees and continues to urge the industry to emphasize captioning and creating accessible content.
“First and foremost, everyone can and should caption any video content. Don’t rely on auto-captions, which often make mistakes with wine jargon, producer names, regions, etc.,” says Unterstein. “Secondly, include disability in your DEI policies and initiatives. Wine schools and certification programs should be aware of their obligations under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and be ready and willing to provide qualified sign language interpreters for Deaf students.”
For Michelle, accessibility also needs to include representation of the deaf wine community. This is a large, global community of wine experts that needs more attention in the space.
“I think there needs to be more of an active recruitment of people with disabilities and BIPOC with disabilities into the field. Many deaf people love wine, but they lack the same access to knowledge about opportunities to be able to grab what is currently out there,” says Morris. “Bring existing wine experts with disabilities to the table. Some people have been working in the industry for years; they are veterans. They are viticulturists, winemakers, vineyard owners, Somme, educators, etc. They need to be spotlit more so that others can be inspired to enter the world of wine as well.”
Supporting the deaf wine community can be as simple as learning the language. Both women agree that if you’ve meant to learn ASL, there’s no time like the present!
“I, so often, hear from people that they’ve always wanted to learn sign language, and I encourage them to do it! Move into action,” says Unterstein. Michelle noted something similar, “If you are trying to be a better supporter of the deaf community, truly support them. Instead of saying, ‘I wish I learned ASL,’ learn it!”
Furthermore, both also agree that part of being an ally is opening doors for this community within your organizations or affiliations.
“Instead of questioning the capabilities of a deaf person for your business or team, take a chance and hire them. Train them up,” says Morris. Laura added, “If you’re part of planning an event, include verbiage that sign language interpreters will be provided upon request, and learn how to hire and work with qualified ASL interpreters. If you are on a board or in a leadership role, start a conversation about what your organization can do to be more accessible and Deaf-friendly.”
Both women are only beginning their journeys to increasing access in the deaf wine community. You can follow Michelle at @Migukren on Instagram, and Laura and Uncorked Access are at @uncorked_access. You can also learn more about Uncorked Access at https://www.uncorkedaccess.com/.